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Rescuers Search Montecito for Mudslide Survivors as Death Toll Reaches 15

CARPINTERIA, Calif. — The authorities in Southern California worked through the night and into Wednesday morning to rescue residents trapped in their homes or swept away by a deluge of mud and debris unleashed by hours of heavy rain.

At least 15 people were killed and more than two dozen were injured as a vast area northwest of Los Angeles, recently scorched in the state’s largest wildfire on record, became the scene of another disaster on Tuesday. The authorities said that another two dozen people were unaccounted for.

Among those who were reported missing on Tuesday were the father of a boy who was swept hundreds of yards downstream, and the father of a sailor stationed in Hawaii.

The wreckage of the downpour, coming so soon after the wildfires, was not a coincidence but a direct result of the charred lands, left vulnerable to quickly forming mudslides.

In an interview with CBS on Wednesday, Sheriff Bill Brown of Santa Barbara County said that the authorities were still working to identify those who could be trapped and isolated in areas that the authorities have not yet been able to reach in Montecito and other nearby areas. He said that it was not yet known how many were still trapped.

“I think most people are really shocked at the extent of the damage and how big the impact was to the area,” he said. “Although we knew that this was coming you couldn’t help but be amazed at the intensity of the storm.”

For residents and emergency workers, still weighing the devastation of the fires, Tuesday was a day of grim rituals resumed: road closings, thousands of evacuations, downed power lines, heroic rescues and a search for the dead.

Hundreds of emergency workers, many of whom had weeks earlier battled the massive fire that denuded hillsides and made the dirt so unstable, searched on Tuesday for survivors with the help of Coast Guard helicopters and heavy equipment to clear blocked roads. And flooding and mudslides closed a stretch of Highway 101, a crucial artery along the coast south from Santa Barbara, as well as portions of the 110 freeway.

Late Tuesday, officials said they expected Highway 101 to be closed for at least until Thursday.

As the mud rushed into lower-lying neighborhoods in Montecito, a wealthy hillside community where many celebrities have homes, the power went out and gas lines were severed, said Thomas Tighe, a resident. Officials said Tuesday night that it could be several days before gas service would be restored. They also said power failures were affecting more than 6,000 homes and businesses in the area, adding that many parts of Montecito were without drinkable water.

A steep slope, made unstable by rain or fire, can give way without warning, creating a destructive torrent of rock and mud.Published OnCreditImage by Aaron Byrd/The New York Times

Sometime after 2 a.m. Mr. Tighe heard a loud rumbling, which he took to be boulders crashing down the hills. In the dark of the night, he could make out his cars floating away. Wearing a wet suit and booties, he used an ax to break down the fences around his house, which had been holding back the mud.

By dawn the devastation — and human toll — became clearer. Just 50 feet from Mr. Tighe’s home, firefighters found a body, wedged up against a neighbor’s car. Down the street, a couple and their three children, including an infant, sought safety on their roof.

“The neighborhood got pummeled,” Mr. Tighe said. “We were lucky in the scope of things.”

Anticipating the floods, Santa Barbara County officials issued a mandatory evacuation order on Sunday evening for roughly 7,000 residents, but most chose to stay in their homes.

“We went door to door,” said Gina DePinto, the communications manager for Santa Barbara County. “But many refused to leave.”

Mr. Eliason, the fire department spokesman, said he worked with a team of firefighters that rescued eight people, including the 14-year-old girl who was in a house that was forced off its foundation and crashed into a stand of trees. It took two hours for firefighters to cut her out of the debris.

Jonathan W. Godt, who coordinates the landslide hazards program at the United States Geological Survey, said the area of the Thomas Fire was prone to debris flows for two reasons: the terrain and the nature of the fire.

“That’s some really rugged topography,” Dr. Godt said, with steep slopes and elevation differences.

The fire, in a mostly chaparral landscape, also burned exceptionally hot, Dr. Godt said. A fire changes the physical properties of the soil, making it less absorbent. “It becomes much more erodible,” he said.

As rainwater runs off and flows downhill, it picks up soil, trees, boulders and other debris and eventually collects in a stream channel. The mix of water and debris, often with a consistency close to wet concrete, can then continue traveling at high speed down the streambed.

“You bring that down at 20 miles per hour and it can do a lot of damage,” Dr. Godt said.

Jennifer Medina reported from Carpinteria, Calif.; Thomas Fuller from San Francisco; and Tim Arango from Los Angeles. Jonah Engel Bromwich and Henry Fountain contributed reporting from New York.

 

Source: Google Alerts

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